Theophilus & Joseph R. Noel Houses
[Theophilus & Joseph R. Noel Houses (1903 & 1905) Charles Thisslew, architect /Image & Artwork: designslinger]
As a young man Theophilus Noel wasn't sure what he wanted to do, but he knew it wasn't staying in school. So in 1855 the 15-year-old set out to make his fortune and found success selling encyclopedia's and "Audubon's American Fowls" which garnered $22,000 in commission sales in one year. He then set himself up in the publishing end of things in Galveston, Texas, but by 1861 was out of publishing and into real estate investing. Real estate brought him to Chicago in 1876 as the managing agent and representative of the Texas Land and Emigrant Association, and it was in Chicago that he really hit the jackpot, not in the land business, but in the patent medicine business, which made him a millionaire.
[Theophilus & Joseph R. Noel Houses, 2118 & 2134 W. Pierce Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]
Proprietary, or patent, medicine first hit the shores of this country in the 18th century when pharmacists under Royal Patent of the monarch of England sold their medicinal concoctions in the New World. By the last two decades of the 20th century patent medicines were big business on the potions market, advertised as cure alls for all manner of ailments, and were often laced with cocaine or opium, which was entirely legal at the time. Bayer made cough syrup with a dash of heroin, and one enhanced formula packed alcohol, cannabis indica, chloroform, and morphine into every teaspoon full dose. Theophilus, now often referred to as Theodore, made one more career switch in 1883 when he tried his hand in the medicinal game offering customers his "Elixir Vitae." The powder became a pill, and by 1903 V.-O. Pills, "a concentrated compound extract of Vitae One Elixir" were generating around $450,000-a-year in sales. With the cash pouring in Noel and his son Joseph commissioned architect Charles Thisslew to design a house on Ewing Place in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood, which would be conveniently located near their Vitae Ore Building offices on North Avenue.
[Theophilus & Joseph R. Noel Houses, 2118 W. Pierce Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]
Theo and Harriet Noel's only child Joseph was born in Texas, but grew up in Chicago. In 1893, while attending Rush Medical College, his mother died in the family's Polk Street home, and during his internship in 1894 at a hospital in Canada his father remarried. Joseph came back to Chicago to began his practice, but in 1987, three years after his marriage to Alice Warner, he decided to join his father manufacturing the Vitae brand, and became the vice president of Theo. Noel Co. in 1900. Then in 1903 when the new house was finished, Joseph and Alice moved into what was then 63 Ewing Place (now 2118 W. Pierce Avenue), while Theo moved between Chicago, his home in Michigan, and Noel Manor in Santa Cruz, California. While all this was going on things weren't going well in Theophilus eleven year marriage. In 1905, the year that Elizabeth Noel filed for divorce, Joseph hired architect Thisslew once again to design a new home for he, Alice and their two daughters one house over from the 2-year-old Noel dwelling. And to top-it-all-off, 1905 was also the year that Joseph started a banking enterprise on North Avenue, two blocks from his Ewing Place address and located near the offices of his father's company. It was an action-packed Noel year.
[Theophilus & Joseph R. Noel Houses, 2134 W. Pierce Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]
The silhouette of the house at 73 Ewing Place (now 2134 W. Pierce Avenue) looked very much like Thisslew's design two years earlier. But the architect changed some of the decorative detailing, and instead the rounded arch over the front porch entry of the previous house, he gave Joseph squared corners. The former limestone faced Noel dwelling became home to two new families, the William Muellers and the Henry Weinhardts, while the creator of the vitae elixir, sans wife, moved in with his son. The Noels stayed at their Ewing Avenue address long enough to see the house number change to 2134, but not long enough to see the name change from Ewing to Pierce. They moved to South Grove Avenue in Oak Park in 1912 as Joseph's banking business grew and the elixir business faded into the background. In 1905 a very public campaign against "snake oil" medicines began when the Ladies Home Journal, and then Collier's Magazine ran a series of articles debunking the claims made by patent proprietors. In 1906 the U.S. Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act which created the modern day Food and Drug Administration, and pretty much killed this version of miracle cure products. In 1940 the Association House of Chicago, of which Joseph Noel was a board member, purchased the house at 2134 W. Pierce Avenue, which is now a multi-unit condo building.
See more of the Noels at: Walgreen's - Noel State Bank Building and Northwest Tower Building; more of Pierce Avenue at: Hans D. Runge - John F. Smulski House and from Thisslew at: Lenke, Horn & Conway Houses, Pierce Avenue, Chicago.